Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–As war dominates the headlines, journalists, scholars and others interested in public policy have noticed a growing silence: the absence of women’s voices in the nation’s elite media. The war has only accelerated a trend that has been brewing for some time: the Spiral of Silence.

On too many opinion pages, you find men writing the same thing over and over about Iraq, terrorism and military questions, while room just can’t be found for other issues–or even women with a perspective on international issues. Even on the topic of Affirmative Action–an issue of extreme importance to women–this week The New York Times and The Washington Post opinion pages had all-male line-ups. (Some papers, it should be said, manage to do better. The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe, for example, display both a wide range of issues and a fair number of women writers.)

Women’s voices aren’t heard and that de-legitimizes women, which in turn deepens the silence.

From opinion pages to brainy magazines to journals of opinion, women’s voices are more muted than they have been in years. As columnist Alicia Mundy writes in Editor and Publisher, at The Washington Post, “Op-ed pages are bulging with deep ‘insider’ pieces on foreign affairs to the near exclusion of more immediate issues. Second, these pages are almost entirely devoid of women.” She notes that if you did a cursory search of the last two year’s opinion pages, “you would be alarmed at the lack of diversity among writers and among subjects beyond foreign affairs.”

At The New York Times, the same situation generally prevails. In the month between November 4 and December 4 of 2002, for example, an online search revealed that of the non-regular columns on the opinion page, 60 were by men and 14 by women. (Three bylines featured names that were androgynous, so hard to quantify.) Two of these pieces by women could be called very light, one about the perfect Christmas gifts, another by Miss Manners on etiquette. When all opinion page bylines were counted, of 92 writers, only 19 were women. And as the nation lurched into war, the situation has not improved.

Even veteran women journalists have trouble getting heard these days. Mundy writes that Pulitzer Prize winner and syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman complained to her about getting bumped too often at The Washington Post. Geneva Overholser, the former Ombudsman at the Post and a respected editor and journalist, has been writing for some time about the vanishing of women’s voices on opinion pages and has noted the Post’s “white male culture.”

If you read many opinion pages these days, you would think that issues of poverty, race, sexism, the health care crisis, working families, stem cell research and education had simply vanished from the planet. Mundy notes that at the Post, the opinion pages are now “ploddingly predictable.” She says “Several columnists are still trying to kick Bill Clinton (he’s gone, guys) and most of the time they gorge on what we women sarcastically used to call ‘Big——- Issues’ (suggesting an excess of testosterone).”

At the most respected magazines and journals, the situation is not much better. Look at The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly–once again, you will see few female bylines.

At the Atlantic, there exists what might be called a journalistic apartheid where women are concerned. If you’re a regular reader of the publication, which I am, you’d think that some sort of plague had decimated the female population. Between December 2001 and December 2002, for example, I found 38 major articles by men and seven by women. Two of these women were writing with their more famous husbands; another was doing an anecdotal piece on cross-dressing. So for serious pieces, the total is 38 to 4. The essays were even worse. During this period, I found 41 essays by men and two by women. Or to be precise, two essays by the same woman. For the Atlantic, Margaret Talbot represented all of womanhood.

At The New Yorker, things are much the same. On the Web site MobyLives, Dennis Loy Johnson points out that while many–perhaps most–New Yorker readers are female, few of the magazine’s bylines are. He said he was tipped off to this fact by a senior publishing executive and decided to make his own count at The New York Public Library. He found that 80 percent of the writing in the magazine at that point (the summer of 2002) was by men. Even worse, “The overwhelming majority of writing contributed by women was written by staffers and appeared in the magazine’s back pages,” he says.

Johnson notes that the woman who had published the most poetry in the magazine at the time he checked in 2002 was Dana Goodyear, the 25-year-old assistant to editor in chief David Remnick.

The situation is dire for women scholars and journalists who wish to influence the public agenda of the nation. I haven’t seen it so bad since the pre-women’s movement days when women were completely invisible in the media. And in journalism, the number of women gatekeepers is on the wane. Just one in five of top female newspaper editors expect to stay where they are. One in two expect to leave their company or the news business entirely, according to a 2002 report by The American Press Institute and the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. A report from the media management center at Northwestern in 2002 found few women in top newspaper jobs.

“Few opportunities exist for women to make it to the top,” the report concluded.

While women hold 44 percent of newspaper jobs, tiny numbers of them are in the executive suite. Women have in fact lost ground, dropping from 29 percent of executive jobs in 2000 to 26 percent in 2002. Eighty-six percent of top jobs in newspapers are held by men, the report noted.

In the Internet and telecommunications industries, a 2002 study by The Annenberg Foundation found that women hold only 16 percent of executive jobs in telecommunications and 18 percent in Internet companies. Is “new media” becoming a boys club, like the old media was for so long (and may become once again)? And a study by The White House Project in 2001 found that women represented only 10 percent of guests on the five major network Sunday public affairs shows. As Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz pointed out, the guests on these shows “have one thing in common. They don’t wear pantyhose.”

Talk radio has long been the domain of conservative men and cable news is heading in that direction. MSNBC has just hired rabid right winger Michael Savage (after dumping liberal Phil Donahue, long identified as pro-feminist). The women who have their own shows on nighttime national cable tend to function as reporter-interviewers rather than as pundits–Greta van Susteren for example. There is no female equivalent of Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, or Hannity and Combs, where the hosts are there to be very opinionated. Gerry Ferraro used to do a regular turn on “Crossfire,” but now the regular hosts are all male.

What’s to be done about this state of affairs? Studies and reports and complaints don’t seem to have helped. Maybe women readers and viewers hold the key. Maybe they ought to simply stop buying publications or watching shows that rarely cover their issues and seem to hold women in contempt or disregard. Since women tend to be major buyers of newspapers and magazines, as well as consumers of products advertised on television, a “pocketbook action” might actually get results.

Caryl Rivers is a professor journalism at Boston University.

For more information:

Media Report to Women:

Moby Lives
The Talk of the Rest of the Town:

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
FAIR’s Women’s Desk: